BELTON-Both the UMHB men’s and women’s soccer teams began their 2023 regular seasons outside of Texas. And they both returned back home to Belton with a pair of quality results in tow. Improvement was made on the season’s opening weekend, and that’s all both head coaches could really ask for.
The road continues on for both squads in the coming weekend, but this time in Belton. The men host Texas Lutheran (2-0) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, and two days later, St. Thomas (TX) (2-0) comes to Central Texas for a 6:00 p.m. match. The women welcome Ohio Northern (0-1-1) to the Lone Star State on Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m.
“I want my team to be prepared to play anybody,” Women’s head coach Barry Elkins said earlier this week. “So we picked up Ohio Northern on the schedule. We picked up Trinity as well. UW-Stevens Point is coming down again. Because I think as we’ve gotten a little bit better, we can play some of the top teams in the nation. If they want to play, we’ll play ‘em.”
ONU enters the week 0-1-1, but the Polar Bears’ lone loss came by a mere one goal to Case Western Reserve, the No. 2 team in the country. Like UMHB, they were an NCAA Tournament team last fall, and return six seniors who are three-year letterwinners at ONU.
Elkins is happy with the matchup, in large part due to the fact that teams from various regions of the country often have intricacies and different playing styles compared to the opponents UMHB faces in conference play. His team got another look at that in their season-opening contests wins over UW-Whitewater and St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota.
“Their team makeup is different and the style of play is different,” Elkins said of playing teams from around the country. “To adapt to that, I was proud of how the girls responded.”
His team was not the only one to be challenged on the road in Week 1. On the men’s side, head coach Ben Allen’s squad battled a pair of southeastern foes, in Rhodes College and Hendrix College. In those matches, UMHB went 1-0-1, fighting for a full 90 minutes and coming together as a more cohesive unit despite having six new starters in the Starting Eleven.
“Any time you play quality opponents it brings out things that you need to work on,” Allen noted. “I was really happy with my guys. It’s a process. Hopefully you’re not playing your cleanest soccer in September…we need to be doing that in November.”
Of those aforementioned six new starters, five are completely new to the program itself, having transferred in. With as much chemistry as is required to put a successful product on the pitch, Allen said it was nice to see those transfers mesh well in the early matches of the regular season. With a good balance of newcomers and returners, and plenty of versatility on the roster, there are several players who could move into different spots throughout the season.
“The great thing about a lot of these guys is that they’ve previously played with someone on the team,” Allen said of his transfer group. “That is probably a large reason why they came here.
“Obviously, only playing four games together at this point, [the chemistry] is going to take time. We really like our new guys and our guys that game back. As a coaching staff, we’re just figuring out where our best fits are, because we have a lot of guys who play in a lot of different spots.”
From a roster standpoint for Elkins and his squad, it is a similar situation. There are fewer transfers in the mix–Jayme Dowell (Central Oklahoma) is the only new transfer on the roster and she came in prior to the spring semester–but a handful of returners are in new spots. Look no further than the back line, where Kennedy Harris and Malyn Martinson have teamed up. The duo played a key role in the defensive effort over the weekend, as UMHB posted two shutouts.
“We thought that in that first game, their communication wasn’t great, and it was something they could improve on,” Elkins said of Harris and Martinson. “But you’re watching, and that’s literally the first time these two had been on the field together. Then to watch it be that much better in the second game was wonderful to see.”
Across the board, UMHB’s graduating class from last season included a number of stellar All-ASC contributors, such as All-Americans Maria Rico and Kristen Burdick. Naturally, it gave the opportunity for a group of new upperclassmen to take charge in a leadership role, and Elkins said that Breland Mungia and Natalie Mason both stepped up in key spots in the opening weekend. Additionally, seniors Maren Fields, Tanner Jarzombek, Kelsey White, Ashley Vensel, and Mackenzie Worthy bring invaluable experience to the roster.
They lead a group that is both confident and humble, and sitting in a different position this year compared to last. For much of UMHB’s history, dating back to the early years of the ASC, the Crusaders were in pursuit of Hardin-Simmons at the top of the league standings. But the tide has turned somewhat.
After beating HSU twice last year, UMHB received a No. 1 pick in the conference’s preseason poll. While it has zero bearing on the way the league will actually play it, it is indicative of the opinions of those around the league. With that, comes exterior expectations.
“100 percent we talked about it,” Elkins said. “It’s out there. You can’t avoid it.We talked about it a while ago. This is the first group we’ve had that has played with a target on their back. So now we do get everybody’s best every game.
“That is something we address daily in practice. Because practice needs to be at a level where, when we get into a game, the other team isn’t our toughest opponent. We should’ve already put ourselves through the paces during the week.”
The road does not get easier for Allen and the men’s team, either. They were also picked to win the ASC in the preseason poll, and face four teams that have begun the season at 2-0 over the next three weeks. But three of those contests are at home, and there is just something about matches in Belton that seem to give UMHB a bit of an additional edge.
“It’s great for us to throw ourselves through the fire a little bit, and see what we’re made of heading into the time of year when it really matters most,” Allen said. “Playing at home is just special. We always have a good crowd that shows up and Mary Hardin-Baylor hosts the right way. It only gets harder from here on out. You’ve got a lot of well-coached programs, quality players. We’re excited to get going.”